Today’s blog post is from Kimberly Ennico, a member of the New Horizons’ Composition Theme Team and one of the deputy project scientists. She works at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California, and has been on detail to the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado.
No one can doubt the beauty of Pluto and Charon—amazing worlds revealed by the images from NASA’s New Horizons mission. From Pluto’s mountains, glaciers, ice-volcanoes, blue skies, and layered colorings to Charon’s vast tectonic structures and enigmatic red-colored pole, these pictures and associated spectra are rich puzzles waiting to be solved.
The July 14, 2015 Pluto flyby gave us an initial look at one side of Pluto, with its iconic heart-shaped feature. But I’m interested in the full planetary perspective, finding the “other sides” of Pluto to be every bit as fascinating as the encounter hemisphere. We must remember that a flyby is a moment in time lasting a few hours. In contrast, Pluto and Charon each rotate about its axis every 6.4 Earth days. This means that when New Horizons flew through the Pluto system it captured one hemisphere of each body in incredible detail.
What do we know about the “other sides” of Pluto and its largest moon? In the three weeks before the flyby, the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) and Multispectral Visible Imaging Camera (MVIC) imaged Pluto and Charon every day, sometimes two or three times a day to gather as much coverage across the bodies as New Horizons closed in. LORRI is New Horizons’ primary camera, an 8-inch telescope outfitted with an unfiltered charge-coupled device (CCD) – like you’d find in your own digital camera – sensitive to visible light. MVIC is a separate instrument with multiple CCDs, for which several are outfitted with color filters. The highest resolution images of the “other sides” of Pluto and Charon were observed 3.2 Earth days earlier, around July 10-11.
Working with a subset of the data (as not all these images have been sent to Earth from New Horizons yet), we’ve received our first glimpse of these “non-encounter” hemispheres below.
What strikes me most about the new Pluto color images is that the latitudinal (horizontal) banding identified on the encounter hemisphere is evident all around Pluto. Specifically, the northern polar region has a distinctive color from adjacent latitudes. The darkest region, which spans the equator, also appears to continue around Pluto, showing distinct variations on the side facing Charon, which have yet to be understood.
Why is this interesting? Coloring on Pluto is thought to have been the result of hydrocarbons called tholins that have formed in the atmosphere and have been “raining” down on Pluto’s surface over the millennia. We’re investigating whether Pluto’s colored terrains are primarily due to changes in or movements of its surface ices, specifically whether they have been undergoing seasonal effects –changing in temperature over time from the amount of cumulative sunlight – which could display itself as horizontal banding. The presence of that vast reservoir of methane, nitrogen and carbon monoxide ices in Pluto’s “heart” complicates the picture and could serve as a visible marker to trace changes.
Over the next few months, as more of this late-approach imagery gets downlinked from the spacecraft’s recorders, we will continue to piece together this colorful story of Pluto and Charon – from all sides.